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The Secrets to Creating a Quintessential Cream Ale

Published: February 26, 2024
A promotional photo of Genesee Cream Ale

Over the past year, we dove deep into several different old-world beer styles—Scotch ale, Märzen, Belgian tripels, and Czech pilsners, among others. But beers that originate from Europe aren’t the only ones that have stood the test of time. Here in the U.S., some classics still ring true in taprooms today—for instance, the cream ale.

A style that dates back to the mid-1800s in the States, cream ale, an ale-lager hybrid, is designed to be pale in color, low in ABV, and crushable. Neither overly hoppy nor malty, the cream ale could be considered among the first lawnmower beers in America; even the BJCP harkens to that in its description of the beer’s overall impression.

The BJCP describes a cream ale as “a clean, well-attenuated, flavorful American ‘lawnmower’ beer. Easily drinkable and refreshing, with more character than typical American lagers.”

We chatted with breweries nailing the style, including Lexington Brewing, Good Measure Brewing, and one of the most iconic cream ale makers, Genesee Brewing Company, to learn the cream ale’s top considerations and the challenges of making a great one.

(Above photography courtesy of @geneseebrewery)

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How Do the Experts Define Cream Ale?

A promotional photo for Genesee Cream Ale with an outstretched hand holding the can

Photography courtesy of @geneseebrewery

Genesee Brewmaster Matt James says the beer has a golden or pale yellow lager look aesthetically, but it’s about more than just appearance.

“For aromatics, cream ale has something more interesting than a regular lager,” James says. “It has standard lager smoothness but ale characteristics.”

James adds, “I perceive ours as a lager backbone and body, [as well as] depth or mouthfeel, with ale aromatics and some flavor.”

Genesee Director of Brewing and Engineering Steve Kaplan, who has spent many years with Genesee with a stint at Other Half in between, elaborates on Genesee’s approach.

“For us, our ale is ester forward, like an old-school English ale. The way cream ale was developed was not to overpower ale esters, and more sessionable than a standard lager,” Kaplan says. “When we came out with our variety, it was super sessionable but with more flavor.”

It has standard lager smoothness but ale characteristics.
Matt James - Genesee Brewery

Lexington Brewing’s primary goal is to have a solid base beer that they then send to barrels for aging.

“For the cream ale, we were looking for a very palatable ale, but on the lighter and more sessionable side from a barrel-aged beer,” Lexington Brewing & Distilling Company Managing Director Robert Krass says. “It’s more of a philosophical style of barrel aging: We are after the bourbon, not the oak aging. The cream ale’s interesting. It’s still approachable.”

Krass adds, “Stylistically, our biggest impact is it needs to be a good base beer.”

Good Measure Head Brewer and Co-Owner Andrew Leichthammer says that drinkability is the key.

“The beer shouldn’t be complicated and should be satisfying,” he says. “While at the same time making you want to grab another one once you finish your first.”

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What Are the Top Considerations for Cream Ale?

A promotional photo of Riser, a cream ale from Good Measure Brewing featuring cans in an ice bucket

Photography courtesy of @goodmeasurebeer

Leichthammer notes with their cream ale, as well as all their lighter options, they aim for a distinct dryness.

“You don’t want your cream ale to be clunky or thuddy in the mouthfeel,” he says. “You should taste the corn, but it shouldn’t be the only component.”

Focus on good ingredients when writing your recipe. This beer doesn't have a lot to hide behind.
Andrew Leichthamme - Good Measure Brewing

Many prototypical cream ales will include up to twenty percent maize in the mash, according to the BJCP, which is why this style can be known to have a sweet corn-like aroma.

Leichthammer adds, “Focus on good ingredients when writing your recipe. This beer doesn’t have a lot to hide behind.”

Lexington Brewing focuses on when the beer is heading into the barrel to give it the full flavor it needs.

“When you look at how we use the barrel—it gets dumped, and then the beer gets in,” Krass says. “The third life cycle [of the barrel] either goes to [the] brewery or distillery. If it goes to the brewery, that’s when we do the cream ale—softens the blow.”

Krass reiterates that the cream ale gets less of the bourbon notes used in the third cycle, but they amp up the vanilla. It works well for the cream ale.

“For the cream ale—our second biggest seller—it’s really great with a seasonal change from cold to hot or hot to cold,” Krass says.

They make additions like coffee and tangerine to complement the vanilla.

“Tangerine was a softer entry to citrus, so it works [well for the cream ale],” Krass says. “It was a great product for the summer,”

Genesee kept things close to the vest on how to execute an excellent cream ale. Kaplan says the first thing Other Half wanted to know when he came aboard was how to make a throwback cream ale.

“Everyone is trying to duplicate what Genesee is doing,” Kaplan says. “People do novel ways of reverse-engineering. Many come close in the end, but it’s nothing like what we do here.”

Kaplan says it’s looking at a kölsch-style and pushing lower limits of ale esters.

“It’s a low-hop, ester-driven beer,” James says. “It has a nice body and [is] a little sweet.”

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Are There Challenges of Making Cream Ale?

A photo showing the various ways that Genesee Cream Ale is bottled and canned

Photography courtesy of Will Cleveland | Rochester Democrat Chronicle

With more than a century of experience, Genesee says the yeast is the key to their success, especially with an ester-driven cream ale.

“Matt has cultivated old yeast strains which have been around since the 1800s,” Kaplan says. “[One of the challenges is] maintaining those strains and knowing how far we can push it without changing the profile.”

James said one way they can change things up is by experimenting with different temperatures.

“The challenge for us is how to work in this brewery museum and keep the flavors alive but modernize us,” Kaplan says. “To drive that specific flavor from fermentation practice and yeast management is a huge challenge in itself; the vast majority in craft beer is driving flavors through specialty malt and hops.”

James says that with all the new products and brewing methods available to brewers, making a “fairly simplistic” beer like cream ale can be challenging.

“Nowadays, there is so much to add so much complexity, and I think people overthink it,” James says.

... we have to consider the fact that corn is completely formidable, unlike malted barley.
Dave Bob Gasper - Lexington Brewing

Lexington Brewing National Brand Manager Dave Bob Gasper says that one challenge for them is pH levels, which drop down during fermentation but come back up naturally on their own.

“Because of the flaked maize, our brewers will make different water adjustments too,” Gasper says. “Also, when brewing, we have to consider the fact that corn is completely formidable, unlike malted barley.”

Leichthammer says DMS and diacetyl during fermentation can be of concern.

“The corn can tend to cover up some of these flaws, but people will taste it after a few sips,” Leichthammer says. “A full ninety-minute boil will help alleviate any risk of DMS, and we usually aim for a proper diacetyl rest of at least three days.”

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What Is a Quality Grist Bill for Cream Ale?

A promotional photo for Lexington Brewing Company's Kentucky Vanilla Barrel Cream Ale

Photography courtesy of @lexingtonbrewingco

Lexington holds their grist bill close to the vest, but Gasper says the brew team makes the base cream ale to work well with the barrel aging, which runs about two months.

“Along with flaked maize, we are brewing with four other grains,” Gasper says.

Leichthammer says Good Measure has an atypical grist for a traditional cream ale.

“We aim for around sixty percent pilsner malt, thirty percent flaked corn, and a big ten percent addition of dextrose in the whirlpool,” Leichthammer says.

Leichthamer says they lean on Proximity Malt for most of their beers, including the flagship cream ale.

“We find that their Pilsen malt adds a nice grassy, fresh baked bread character,” he says. “We use dextrose and a low mash temp (149 to 151 degrees Fahrenheit) to achieve an extra dryness in the finished beer.”

Kaplan says that the grist for the cream ale depends on what they are looking for—more body or more sweetness. He says the recipe is proprietary but gave some insights.

“Everyone has to have near a fifty-fifty split of adjunct-to-malt ratio,” he says.

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How Do Hops Factor Into Cream Ale?

A promotional photo for Genesee Cream Ale with a can on a Scrabble board

Photography courtesy of @geneseebrewery

Much of the Genesee recipe is proprietary, but Kaplan shares the brewery hasn’t altered anything for some time.

“Our goal is to hit the same flavor profile and the same IBUs, around ten to twelve,” Kaplan says. “It’s been U.S. hops for a long time.”

Kaplan didn’t specify which U.S. hops they use but said it varies depending on availability.

It’s been U.S. hops for a long time.
Steve Kaplan - Genesee Brewery

Conversely, Good Measure consistently brews with the same hop for its cream ale.

“We use U.S. Cascade for our one and only bittering addition at seventeen IBUs,” Leichthammer says. “It’s just enough to balance the beer but not enough to hide the corn and pilsner character, which would push it more into the blonde ale territory.”

Gasper says that Lexington Brewing uses one hop, though he didn’t divulge which nor how they use them in their process.

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What ABV Works Best for Cream Ale?

Gasper prefers the mid-5s for the ABV in their cream ale.

A photo of a Rise can from Good Measure Brewing

Photography courtesy of @goodmeasurebeer

“For us and our Kentucky Cream Ale, it finishes perfectly with a 5.3% to 5.5% ABV,” Gasper says.

Genesee has always been partial to the low 5s for their cream ale ABV, according to Kaplan.

“We’re at 5.1% to 5.2% ABV, and that’s where it will hold the body we need but [remain] sessionable,” Kaplan says. “It’s crushable and sessionable, the beer they wanted to drink [when they originally made the beer].”

He adds, “It’s a throwback for me.”

Good Measure wants an even lower ABV.

“I would say anything in the range of 4.5% to 5.0% ABV is pretty perfect,” Leichthammer says. “You want to be able to drink a few and have it be refreshing and not overwhelming.

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Three Examples of a Great Cream Ale

A promotional photo of a six back of bottled Kentucky Double Barrel Cream Ale from Lexington Brewing Company

Photography courtesy of @lexingtonbrewingco

Lexington Brewing Company has a base Kentucky Cream Ale at 5.5% ABV and twenty-two IBUs.

“When you have that barrel—toasted or charred—vanilla is almost always going to come through,” Krass says. “And we exaggerate that vanilla. It naturally fits from what the barrel gives up, and we exaggerate it for the consumer who is coming into drinking barrel-aged beers for the first time.”

He adds, “Those are all reasons we’re really proud of that beer.”

The Genesee Cream Ale is made in the essence of a lager with the flavor of an ale. Brewed since pre-prohibition, the 5.2% ABV beer hits nine IBUs.

Good Measure’s flagship beer, Early Riser, is a cream ale. It’s 4.8% ABV with fourteen IBUs.

“This beer is a labor of love,” Leichthammer says. “We brewed over seventy-two iterations of the beer, slightly changing variables until we landed on something we found perfect.”

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Ollie author headshot for Giovanni Albanese, Jr.

About The Author

Giovanni Albanese

Giovanni is a content writer for Next Glass, contributing to the Ollie blog. He is a writer by day and a brewer/business owner by night, owning and operating Settle Down Brewery & Taproom in Gilroy, California.

Giovanni is passionate about a number of things, including history, documentaries and sports, but none more than reporting/writing and brewing beer. After receiving a radio broadcasting degree then a journalism degree from Salem State College in his home state of Massachusetts, he relocated to California in 2008.

Then, his writing career kicked off – covering sports, business, politics and more along the way – while concurrently dabbling in home brewing. The home brewing turned pro in 2021 when he launched SDB Brewing Company. Settle Down Beer officially opened in February.

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